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Storytelling with Grandma


Storytelling with Grandma

Joanna Chan (Ed.D., 1977)

Deep inside the maximum-security New York State prison known as Sing Sing, the inmates have a name for Joanna Chan (Ed.D., 1977): “Grandma.”
Chan, an energetic woman in her sixties, laughs when she refers to her nickname, but her voice also carries a note of pride. Since 2002, she has coached actors and taught play writing to Sing Sing prisoners as a volunteer with the nonprofit Rehabilitation Through the Arts program. The mutual affection between the Chinese-born playwright and director and the inmates is so strong that Chan recently wrote a play for them. “I told them, if there’s one play left in me, I’d like to write it with you,” Chan says.
The play, In the Silence of the Heart, was performed under Chan’s direction inside Sing Sing last fall and to a general audience in Manhattan this spring. In Chan’s words, it is a fictional tale of “forgiveness and reconciliation” and was inspired by sessions she called “Storytelling with Grandma.”
In addition to being “Grandma” to the prisoners, Chan is co-founder of the Yangtze Repertory Theatre in Manhattan, an accomplished oil painter, and, for more than 40 years, a Sister with the Maryknoll Congregation in Ossining, N.Y.
In recognition of her work, she has been honored as a “Chinese-American Culture Pioneer” and has had a day—July 9, 1993—named in her honor (Joanna Chan Day) by the City of New York. Chan was also a recipient of TC’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1994.
And despite what she told her Sing Sing Class, Chan is not slowing down. “In the Silence of the Heart won’t be my last play after all,” she says. She was recently commissioned to write a play based on the first merchant ship to sail from New York Harbor to Canton, China, the city where she spent her childhood. And, lest the prisoners of Sing Sing feel left out, “Grandma” recently added a Mandarin language class to her Sing Sing offerings.
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